The rise of “bling-bling”

The Hip Hop Word Count, as detailed in this week’s New Yorker, offers a great encapsulation of the basic ways in which algorithmic methods have and will become central to the study of language and literature. This database of rap and hip-hop lyrics, the brainchild of artist and academic Tahir Hemphill, compiles thousands of songs to allow for tracking, analysis, and comparison. Hemphill shows how, for example, the word “bling-bling” enters rap in 1993 and then expands across the genre, or how the influence of Southern rap has emphasized slower verses with fewer words and less linguistic sophistication. The database is, of course, a great resource for anyone studying contemporary music, but it also points to how these kinds of large-scale, quantitative models can help to build or confirm arguments about literary history. I think it will become more and more common to see literary critics combining traditional methods of close reading and interpretation with these quantitative methods—and, hopefully, revising their arguments if the numbers don’t fit the perceived “trend.”


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